The Wave Hill Walk-Off through Brenda L. Croft’s eyes

4 Sep 2017
Brenda L. Croft, Self–portrait on country (Wave Hill), 24 June 2014, 2014, inkjet print on archival paper. Reproduced courtesy of the artist, Stills Gallery Sydney and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne.

Brenda L. Croft has been involved in the contemporary arts and cultural sectors for three decades as an artist, arts administrator, curator, academic and consultant. She was recently in Brisbane for the opening of Still in my mind: Gurindji location, experience and visuality, an exhibition she developed through long-standing, practice-led research with her father’s community, Karungkarni Art and Culture Aboriginal Corporation and UNSW Galleries, UNSW Art & Design. UQ Art Museum is proud to be a partner on the project and to host the exhibition until 19 October 2017. We caught up with Brenda to learn more about her connection to the people, land and communities impacted by the historic events at Wave Hill 51 years ago.

Q: The 1966 Wave Hill Walk-Off marked the birth of the national land rights movement, contributing to the establishment of the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory). Can you tell us about your personal connection to this history, and how it influenced your decision to develop Still in my mind: Gurindji location, experience and visuality
A: I am connected to Gurindji/Malgnin/Mudburra peoples through my father Joseph’s side. He was born on Victoria River Downs c. 1926. He and my grandmother, Bessie, were taken to Kahlin Aboriginal Compound in 1927 and from there he was removed from her care in 1930 and taken to Pine Creek Boys Home, then to the Bungalow/Half-Caste Children’s Home in 1931.

My father lost contact with my grandmother in the early 1940s, when women and children were evacuated from Darwin following the Japanese bombing of the city; he thought she had died. It was not until 1968 that he learnt she was alive through correspondence with the Northern Territory Chief Protector of Aborigines. In 1974 our family travelled to Darwin to be reunited with her, shortly before her death later that year.

My father always knew he was Gurindji/Mudburra and my brothers and I were brought up with a strong sense of pride in our Indigenous heritage, instilled by both parents. We discovered our other cultural connections after returning to country. The Gurindji Walk-Off from Wave Hill was an event of great pride for our family.

In 1989 my father travelled back to Victoria River country for the first time since he was taken to Darwin six decades earlier. I followed in his footsteps in 1991. After his death in 1996, my brother Timothy and I took our father’s ashes home and, following a memorial service at Kalkaringi, he was buried on 22 August, the day before the 30th anniversary of the Walk-Off.

Since that time we have returned regularly to our father’s country. Still in my mind: Gurindji location, experience and visuality developed from these ongoing journeys to our traditional homelands and also visiting displaced family and community members, all of which has been integral to my practice-led research project.

Q: You’ve taken a collaborative approach to curating the exhibition, drawing on your practice-led research with your father’s community and Karungkarni Art and Culture Aboriginal Corporation. Would you speak about this methodology, and your resolve to ensure that multiple voices were represented?
A: This project could only be undertaken as a collaboration, not only with family and community members, but also with other colleagues, such as Dr Felicity Meakins, whose Gurindji language projects, facilitated through UQ and Karungkarni Art and Culture Aboriginal Corporation, Kalkaringi, have been conducted for many years.

I feel very fortunate that our projects had synergies, which enabled these collaborations. It was important to me that my research had resonance for family and community members, including those who are members of Gurindji displaced communities who participated in my research through interviews.

As stated in my initial research outline: Still in my mind cultivated models for representing specific Gurindji histories, and the contemporary experiences for culturally affiliated Gurindji people – whether on customary lands or part of a broader displaced community. The collaborative nature of this project ensures that living family members maintain Indigenous cultural practices of obligation and responsibility for transmitting knowledge through kinship.

This entailed travelling back to Victoria River region on numerous occasions throughout the project’s duration (2012–2015), and also returning to present work-in-progress at the 50th Gurindji Walk-Off from Wave Hill Station commemoration in August 2016. This built upon journeys home from 1991 onwards, which continue beyond the research project’s duration.

I was also fortunate to project manage the 45th Gurindji Walk-Off from Wave Hill Station commemoration in 2015, during my tenure at the University of South Australia, which enabled research and development for Still in my mind.

I conducted extensive interviews with Gurindji community members in Sydney, Canberra and Darwin. All of these were transcribed and provided to participants for approval. A number of sections of these video and audio interviews were included in Still in my mind.

Q: Can you describe what it was like to retrace the Walk-Off Track, and talk about some of the artworks that emerged from this experience? 
A: It was a humbling, stumbling (literally and metaphorically) experience to walk the actual Track, which I did over a number of years, with and without family and community members who acted as guides. Initially family members led the way and then I would return solo and take further photographs, and record audio and video. I often retraced sections of the Track as well. These components were conducted during different seasons and at different times of the day.

I found it incredibly moving retracing the steps of those 200+ activists over four decades later. I walked the Track as a tribute to those people, but also in honour of those who were taken from our community and never made it home, and for those who will travel the Track in the future. It was never simply about walking 22 kilometres of country; it was also about walking through temporal space.

The resulting experimental, large-scale audio-visual work Retrac(k)ing country and (s)kin incorporates this material, alongside archival audio recordings and video footage from other sites relevant to my father and immediate family’s journey as members of the Stolen Generations; my late brother Lindsay’s research with my father conducted in 1989; and my father’s own research on his life story. It is a multi-faceted, multi-layered work which acts as the heartbeat for the entire exhibition, drawing together elements from Victoria River country and people, and displaced Gurindji community.

Q: In working on the exhibition and related projects, you’ve collaborated with Dr Felicity Meakins, Senior Lecturer, Languages and Cultures, The University of Queensland (UQ), a linguist who specialises in Gurindji language. Felicity, would you discuss aspects of the exhibition that make it particularly relevant to the UQ community, and explain why staff and students will find value in its broader themes? 
A: Dr Felicity Meakins – The Gurindji language plays an integral role in the exhibition. Many of the paintings were originally produced for Yijarni: True Stories from Gurindji Country, which is a collection of oral histories told by Gurindji elders in their own language. A number of these stories had been told previously to historians and anthropologists in their best English but with not nearly the same detail, humour and pathos as the stories from Yijarni, which are told in their first language, Gurindji. The works were created during a Karungkarni Arts artist camp in 2015, facilitated by Penny Smith (Karungkarni Arts manager), Brenda and I, and supported by the Murnkurrumurnkurru rangers. Artists listened to the recorded stories from Yijarni and produced beautiful visual interpretations of these stories over a number of days camped at Warrijkuny on Gurindji country.

A: Brenda L. Croft – It was very important for me that the exhibition come to UQ, in part because of the connection with Dr Felicity Meakins, who I’ve had the great pleasure of working closely with over the duration of this project and through her other significant Gurindji projects.

There was also a strong personal connection, as my father was the first Aboriginal student to attend UQ, if not the first Indigenous university student in the country, as noted in regional, state, territory and national newspapers of the time. He commenced in 1944, studying civil engineering until 1948, with periods away from university when he joined the army.

Although he did not complete his Bachelor of Engineering, he went on to work in his chosen field, surveying; he was involved in numerous infrastructure projects in Queensland and around Australia. My father’s connection with UQ is covered in From Relics to Rights, curated by Michael Aird at UQ’s Anthropology Museum, and is part of my father’s journey as a member of the Stolen Generations, represented in my work Retrac(k)ing country and (s)kin.

In 2017 St John’s College established the ‘Joseph (Joe) Croft Indigenous Indigenous Award’ in memory of my father’s residence as a student seven decades earlier. The scholarship was established at the instigation of two of my father’s former school friends from All Souls Anglican School, Charters Towers, who are also UQ Alumni, Professor Sam Mellick CBE, and Peter Hollingsworth AC, OBE. It was very moving having both attend the opening at UQ Art Museum, along with some of my father’s school and family friends, Nick Komaroff, Jocelyn Perrers and Meg Aspinall, and representatives from St John’s College Council and All Souls St Gabriels School.

Still in my mind: Gurindji location, experience and visuality continues at UQ Art Museum until 29 October 2017.

Developed in a partnership between UNSW Galleries, UQ Art Museum, and Karungkarni Art and Culture Aboriginal Corporation, with support from an ARC Discovery Indigenous Award, the National Institute for Experimental Arts, and the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language. Still in my mind: Gurindji location, experience and visuality is generously assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body, and the Indigenous Languages and Arts Program.